"My season has been up and down, highs and lows," Nikita Stover said afterwards. "But here at the end we're playing our best football. We just beat one of the best teams in the state."
Not coincidentally (since we made the drive up to Cullman for the game), Stover wasn't the only top prospect playing that night. Defensive tackle/offensive guard Justin Britt competed for Cullman. Already committed to Alabama himself, Stover had a message for his talented erstwhile opponent.
"We need to get some more players like Justin Britt to go ahead and commit," Stover said with a laugh. "Justin's good. He's like they said he would be. He's in the backfield on every play. We need to get him to Alabama."
Listed in the database as 6-2, 187, Stover isn't quite that tall. He's very similar in size to current Tide wideout Triandos Luke, perhaps a bit broader in the shoulders. But Stover is a legitimate 6-0 and plenty big to play in the SEC.
The state high jump champion as a sophomore, Stover is a dominant athlete. He runs with a fluid, even graceful, stride, easily pulling away from would-be defenders. All game he was double-covered, and often three men were looking his way.
"I've seen that all season long," Stover said of the coverage. "But if you're a big-time player, then you've got to step up and make big-time plays."
Stover is an explosive athlete with soft hands, a lethal combination at wide receiver. Led by Britt, Cullman used an excellent pass rush to shut down much of Hartselle's long-passing attack. So most of the game Hartselle used Stover effectively as a decoy, clearing out for other receivers and/or running backs. But one play showed his talent.
On a simple post pattern down the left sideline, the pass was thrown high and headed out of bounds. Stover ran the ball down, leaped high in the air to snag the ball before it crossed the sideline plane, then showed excellent body control in getting both feet in bounds to make the legal catch.
Like the best wide receivers, Stover has a knack for making his quarterback look like Joe Montana. Whether the throw is on target or off, he smoothly adjusts his route and ends up underneath the football.
No wonder Alabama and Head Coach Mike Shula rank Stover as a "must have" prospect. "I like Coach Shula," Stover said. "He's laid back. He's a player's coach. I respect him and like him."
Stover plays both receiver and cornerback for Hartselle, and his defensive efforts aren't just for show. He's also excellent at free safety. Opponents rarely throw at him, but he uses his speed to run down plays from the backside. And any errant pass will likely end up as an interception.
On one "jump ball" pass in the second half, several players had a chance at the football, but Stover was the one that came down with the interception.
"I look to Charles Woodson (Michigan's former two-way player who won the Heisman Trophy as a senior)," Stover said. "He played both ways in college, so I try to be like him. Just make the plays when they need to be made."
Offense and defense are impressive enough, but Stover essentially never comes off the field. He returns punts and kickoffs and even runs down on kick coverage. His only chance to get a drink of water comes on placekick attempts and in between quarters.
"It's just heart," Stover said. "I've got asthma, but I stay out there. You've got to have heart to do it. I hardly ever come off the field, especially in a big game like (Saturday's). I like staying in the game; that's just what I do."
An early commitment to sign with Alabama, Stover promises to be a mainstay of the 2004 signing class. "This is a regrouping year for the Tide," Stover said of his next-year's team. "They're fighting to get back on track."
RECRUITING NOTES: Like most high school athletes, Stover will need a solid senior season in the classroom to become qualified. But there is no reason to think he won't make it.
Rated a four-star player by TheInsiders.com, Stover had his pick of schools nationwide to sign with. But he decided early for the Tide.
Read all of the recent recruiting stories on Alabama recruits from TheInsiders.com.